At last, Mr Trimble has a Big Idea to sell to Ulster

This course is fraught with dangers - Unionism is confused and his own party is a shambles
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malone house, where on Monday David Trimble depicted a new Unionism based on partnership and mutual respect, commands a view over many County Down drumlins, the little hills that give the countryside its basket-of- eggs appearance.

Estyn Evans, an academic with a rare gift for blending geography and history, once related those fertile hills to the politics of the Protestants who farmed them. "I suspect that people living in such closed-in lowlands with restricted horizons tend to have a limited vision and imagination," he wrote.

"I always like to contrast that kind of hidden landscape - Protestant landscape, shall I say? - with the open, naked bogs and hills which are naturally areas of vision and imagination, which are poetic and visionary and which represent the other tradition in Ulster."

David Trimble has long been aware that Ulster Unionism has traditionally suffered from the view that it is negative, defensive and backward-looking; that it needs to climb out of the trenches. Nationalists have had the better tunes, the better poets, the better dreams.

Four years ago, Mr Trimble told loyalists on the Shankill Road that what Unionism desperately needed was a Big Idea to allow it to become pro-active rather than perpetually reactive. He admitted he did not know what this new concept might be.

Back then the Unionist Party was led by James Molyneaux, who took pride in the siege mentality. He once compared his role to that of "a general with an army that isn't making anything much in terms of territorial gains but has the satisfaction of repulsing all attacks on the citadel."

This blocking game was clearly not going to suffice in the era of the peace process and the hope for bright new beginnings. This week, nearly three years after becoming leader, Mr Trimble finally came up with a new Unionist idea: partnership with nationalists, so long as they eschewed violence and were seen to be committed to peaceful means.

The speech was studded with words such as diversity, inclusive, tolerance, constructive and respect for each other's traditions. It concluded with a vision of a future "when each may grasp his neighbour's hand as friend". This is not the normal stuff of Unionist speeches; in particular it is not the traditional stuff of speeches made in election campaigns, with voters preparing to go to the polls tomorrow.

Appeals to tribal loyalty are more common than his evocation of a new Northern Ireland "in which pluralist Unionism and constitutional nationalism can speak to each other with the civility that is the foundation of freedom".

Cynics are already saying that this is rhetoric without substance: where, they ask, is the appeal to Orangemen to curb their marching instincts, where the explicit readiness to work with, or even talk to, Sinn Fein without the familiar, blocking pre-conditions.

This was certainly an astute election move. In last month's referendum on the Good Friday agreement, well over 100,000 people turned out who had never voted before. Many of them came because they believed a more constructive politics was on offer, and voted yes.

Mr Trimble clearly wants to inspire them to come out again and to cast their votes for him. He is also looking for SDLP transfers which, under proportional representation, could help him win several valuable seats. Re-casting Unionism in a more constructive light makes sense in terms of electoral tactics.

Yet this is a course fraught with dangers. Unionism is confused and fragmented, its voters spread across five separate parties. His own party is a mess, largely because many of its important members have refused to follow the new Trimble line. His parliamentary party is a shambles, six of his 10 Ulster Unionist MPs in open revolt against him.

He has lost the support of almost all the "baby barristers," the up-and- coming younger members who seemed set to provide the next generation of Unionist MPs. Some senior party members are running against him in the election as anti-agreement independents.

To prevail, he must make a successful appeal to the Unionist electorate over the heads of those who cling to the old order. He is banking on the hope that a clear majority of Protestants are prepared to step into the political unknown.

His judgement on this is probably right. Unionists are accused of being inward-looking, conservative, cautious and suspicious of change. Their traditional political slogans include "No Surrender", "Not an inch", and "What we have we hold".

But while this has been the traditional state of affairs it is not necessarily a natural one. Some Unionists actively relish their bigotry, but many others plainly yearn to be rid of the sectarian yoke they have been lumbered with.

Some of that seemed to be in Mr Trimble's mind on Monday. In the early phase of his leadership he attempted to compete with the Rev Ian Paisley, but now he has struck out determinedly for the centre. At Malone House he had the air of someone engaged in something greater than a simple pitch for votes: he gave the sense of a man who had made an important psychological choice.

Embracing the peace process, or even part of its philosophy of inclusiveness, cannot have been easy, for he has spent years opposing it. But he and many Unionists are making a journey from the negative to the positive, a journey all the more instructive for being so so painful.

One important turning-point came in March when he and SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon went, together, to visit the relatives of two men, one Catholic and one Protestant, who were killed by loyalists in the little County Down village of Poyntzpass.

This was evidently a deeply moving experience. On Monday there was a lump in Mr Trimble's throat when he spoke of shared suffering and of a force "which made us mark each other's bereavements, and feel for each other's losses as parents, sisters, husbands, wives and brothers".

There is so much mistrust in Northern Ireland politics that it will take a long time for nationalists to accept that this politician may have turned a new corner, and that Unionism is capable of being re-fashioned to include the concepts of inclusiveness and partnership.

This was not a de Klerk-style conversion. But there was at Malone House a strong sense of a new personal outreach, of a political leader saying to his supporters that a new start is possible, that the era of politics of trench warfare may be over, and that the time has come to look to new horizons.